BY CAROLINE ROUSE
“Pruébalo.” Señora Pati slides a short blade through a dappled yellow mango. A slice drops into my hand. Pati nods, and I bite tentatively into the fruit.
It is perfectly ripe and impossibly sweet. I hold out a handful of pesos. “Un kilo, por favor.”
Every evening as I walk along Calle Toledo, I pass by Señora Pati’s fruit stand. She greets me as mi hija and slips me pieces of plum, mango, lychee, and papaya. The fruit comes from small farms just outside the city, and as far away as Irapuato and Zacatecas. Señora Pati and Mauricio, her assistant, wake up at 4:00 in the morning to visit producers and arrange the fresh wares in Mexico City; the two do not fold their tarp until 9:00 at night.
Señora Pati is one of over 500,000 street vendors, vendedores ambulantes, in the megalopolis. Children stand at intersections with boxes of bubblegum and lollipops; young men peddle bicycles with coconuts hanging from the handlebars; families set up curbside stalls and roll out cactus tortillas. Sensory experiences vary from street to street, depending on what the vendors prepare.
According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography, informal employment in Mexico City has leapt 40 percent over the last 6 years. This raises concerns about the ways consumers, producers, and vendors interact.
Some argue informal enterprises, which largely avoid the costs of legal compliance and can therefore afford to charge lower prices, put unfair pressure on small formal storefronts. Others voice questions about quality and consumer protection; in a study conducted by the Mexico City Ministry of Health, 300 out of 3,000 street food stands failed to meet basic hygienic standards.
At times, the informally employed risk unsafe conditions and uncertain income. One stormy afternoon, I rushed by two men selling fresh peach and pineapple pies out of the back of a bright blue truck. They called after me, “¡Por favor señorita, llévese uno! ¡A 15 pesos, señorita!” The rising water in the streets meant the men would not make it to market; they priced their pies at just over $1.00 apiece in a desperate attempt to empty the truck.
Still, as of February 2013, about 1.2 million residents of the city counted as informally employed. The rise in this measure has coincided with an increase of more than 20 percent in the city’s gross domestic product since 2007. The average hourly earnings of street vendors are greater than those of agricultural laborers and industrial factory workers.
Since the Aztecs ruled Mexico City in the 16th century, food stands have lined streets and squares. Today, pedestrians purchase traditional Mexican dishes such as chapulines, spicy dried crickets, and gorditas, dense corn cakes stuffed with cheese and peppers and sausage. The stands serve all, from bankers between meetings, to children after school, to tourists looking for an authentic bite. Vendors give the streets of Mexico City a unique flavor, literally and culturally.
For me, the flavor of the day is mamey, mildly sweet. On the outside, the fruit looks something like coconut, but on the inside, it is soft and deep orange. Señora Pati tells me to blend it with milk and hands me the heavy plastic bag. Mauricio gives me my change and a peck on the cheek.
“Gracias, Señora,” I smile as I turn the corner.
“Que te vayas bien, mi hija.”
Caroline Rouse ’15 is in Pierson College. This summer she is blogging from Mexico City. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.